Dr. Alex Durig (see picture) is a professional freelance writer, with a PhD in social psychology from Indiana University (1992). He has authored seven books in his specialization of perception and logic. He claims to have experienced great frustration resolving his experience of perception and logic when it comes to physics, but he says he no longer feels crazy, ever since Anomaly! was published. So I am offering this space to him to hear what he has to say about that...


On Dorigo's Anomaly! and the Social Psychology of Professional Discourse in Physics, by Alex Durig

To the best of my knowledge there is no book quite like Tommaso Dorigo’s Anomaly! Collider Physics and  the  Quest  for  New  Phenomena  at  Fermilab.  It  is  the  first  of  its  kind.  Why?  Because  it accomplishes  something  I  have  yearned  for  all  my  life.  It  pulls  back  the  curtain  and  shows us  how physicists actually talk about their work at top levels. It shows us the behind-the-scenes view of how they  talk,  argue,  fuss,  and  fight  with  one  another.  It  demonstrates  that  physics  is  just as  much  a science   fashioned   out   of   professional   discourse   as   experiments.   You   cannot   separate   the experimental   research,   from   the   talk   about   the   experiments,   before,   during, and after   the experiments.

The  fact  that  a  book  about  the  professional  discourse  of  physicists working  at  cutting-edge particle accelerators,  written  by  a  physicist  working  at  that  level,  is  now  out, shows  that  a change  is  taking place in the paradigm. It is almost like a physicist writing a book about the sociology, and the social psychology, of physics at a cutting-edge particle accelerator. One can only hope this book itself is not just  an  anomaly.  It  may  well  be  a  sign  that  physics,  as  a  group  of scientists  in  dialogue  with  one another, recognizes that it needs to pay attention to its own scientific discourse, and needs to allow other people to witness at least some of its professional discourse.

I  think  Dorigo  represents  a  big part  of  the hope  of  particle physics,  because  he  seems  to  be among the first to recognize, to refuse to take for granted, that the linguistic symbols his colleagues use to communicate  with  each  other  are  every  bit  as  important,  if  not  more  so,  than  the mathematical symbols they use to make their models of the universe.

The future of particle physics may reside, in many ways, in its recognition of the need (a) to analyze its  own  discourse,  (b)  to  publicize  its  discourse,  and  (c)  to  allow  other  scientists  - sociologists, sociolinguists, linguists - to have access to these data from behind the scenes professional discourse, and to analyze it, as well. This is all-important because the critical defining characteristic of science as systematic investigation is for it to be unbound, or not beholden to dogma, for it to have an open discourse, and for it to be shared in a collegial, as well as a competitive spirit.

Physics,  as  we  know  it,  has  been  through  a  lot  of  changes.  Arguably, something  very  strange happened to physics, and it may have taken the entire 20th century to go through it. Along this line of thinking, we may only now be coming out on the other side, in a new century, and maybe on the way to  a  new  paradigm.  Dorigo’s Anomaly!  may  be  anomalous  against  the  backdrop  of  physics literature, yet that is a sure sign that something is happening in the world of science. 

In this blog post, I would like to explain the difference between living in the world before and after Anomaly!  was  published.  Let  me  begin  by  specifically  addressing  what  we  have  gained  from Anomaly! being  published.  Then,  for  the  sake  of  contrast,  I  will  address  what  we  had before Anomaly! was published. For me, the difference is quite significant. 

What We Have Gained from Anomaly! Being Published 

Allow me to explain why Dorigo’s Anomaly! is important, from my perspective, as a social psychologist. In terms of how individuals as members of groups, navigate their paths, and negotiate their destinies, there is something fundamental to the human experience that is worth noting here. This is depicted in Fig. 1 (see below). The idea is that when we lived in an age of common sense, the way we talked was a function of the way we knew the world. Also, vice versa, the way we knew the world was a function of the way we talked.   Now that we live in an advanced age of science, and we are not reliant on common sense alone to gain knowledge, what is critical to note, is that this truth is still the same. The way we talk is a function of the way we know the world. At the same time, the way we know the world is a function of the way we talk.  If our scientific knowledge is a function of our talk and, specifically, a function of our professional discourse, then we can say that our scientific knowledge is a function of our talk, once we have accounted for all of our professional discourse, notated as Knowledge=f(Talk|PD). 

Whether   in   the   most   primitive   human   society,   or   in   our   advanced   society   today,   this   is fundamentally  true.  However,  I  would  contend,  that  for  the  better  part  of the  20th  century, especially in physics, we have neglected the aspect of talk and focused more on knowledge. The fact that Dorigo is the first physicist, that I can locate, to write a book chronicling the way physicists talk in their professional discourse is significant. This treatment of the professional discourse in physics, by a professional physicist, has been missing. 

There  have  been  plenty  of  social  scientists  analyzing  physics  from  all angles,  but  that is hardly the same. Anomaly! is unique for the way a world class physicist has allowed anyone interested to enter into  the  world  of  professional  discourse  among  physicists  as  they  argue  and  disagree about  the interpretations  of  their  research.  This  is  like  being  at  the  fount.  This is  real  science in  action,  real physics in action.

It  was  a mercurial  turn  that  physics  took  in  the  20th  century,  which  obfuscated  transparency of  the professional  discourse.  I  would  argue  that  we  have  been  without  any  emphasis on  the way  our scientific  knowledge  in  physics  is  a  function  of  the  way  physicists  talk.  We  have been  without  this insight for at least 50 years. 

Yet, we all started in the world of common sense. Our ancestors started there, and even as children today,  we  all  still  start  there.  We  can  say  that  the  probability  of  finding  a  new  truth  value  in the world  of  common  sense  is  50%.  Our  ancestors  living  in  primitive  societies  had  a  50/50 chance  of learning something new at any given time. 

We  can  imagine  our  primitive  ancestors  moving  through  the  world, using  trial  and  error  to make their way. This life was not totally unlike the formal work of a scientist, yet it existed on a completely informal level. In the world of common sense, people go through the world, moving from one event to another, making informal hypotheses about what is going on here, gathering evidence in support of their hypotheses, and so on, in a trial and error form.

When  we  formalized  our  informal,  trial  and  error  way  of  making  it  through  the  world,  we created science.  Yet,  whether  in  a  primitive  world  of  common  sense,  or  an  advanced  scientific world,  it  is extremely important to recognize that the way we talk and the way we know the world, each exist in terms of the other, mutually and explicitly. 

Next, we began to wonder if we could improve upon the 50/50  probability of gaining knowledge in the world of common sense. A discourse began concerning ways to improve our odds of discovering new truth  values  in  the  world.  We  began  to  systematize  how  we  investigated  the  world,  and  we developed  repeatable methods  for  investigating  the  world,  which  could  be  replicated  by  others. In this way, we achieved a professional discourse about a systematic way of gaining knowledge, and we called it science. 

Even when the first scientific ideas occurred to people, their first theoretical ideas still only had a 50/50 probability of being true. But, as soon as the data started rolling in from systematic observations, then we began to work out more reliable ways of assuring ourselves that we had indeed learned something about the world. A statistical method can ensure 80% reliability in a robust fashion, which in turn makes the theorists even more confident.

Indeed, when the data starts to come in, that is when we start to make some serious progress. We can actually begin to ratchet up our levels of knowledge with a fair amount of logic and precision. We can now begin doing data analysis and believing we might have a better than 50% probability of discovering truth or just learning something new.

Once the theorists looked at the data, they could revise the original theories, and claim 80% chance of being on the right track due to new methods and observations. At that point, theorists begin to claim to be very confident of their newest theories, sometimes 99% confident. In a brave new scientific world, ceterus paribus, scientists generally occupy lofty realms of knowledge in a range of 80% to 99% percent accuracy and reliability. The scientists are not always right, but they are certainly a far cry from the 50/50 probability of discovering truth and learning something new about the world, which is all our ancestors could claim.

The way people have talked about physics and physicists is a function of what physicists have learned and claim to know about the world. Generally, we have been told that physicists say they feel confident that their new knowledge has a probability of being extremely accurate. This is all very impressive, and we are no longer in the world of common sense. 

But, there is one thing missing from the depiction we have been given of physics. What is there for all to see, is the fact that our talk is a function of our knowledge. But, what is missing, conversely, is something we knew in the world of common sense, but it is something we forgot about, somehow, lately. We forgot about the simple fact that our knowledge, our precious scientific knowledge, is and can only ever be, a function of our talk. This, in fact, is the missing link that was delivered back in the form of Dorigo’s Anomaly!. Now we can make the correction, and depict science in action as it really is. From the lowest level of common sense knowledge to the highest levels of scientific knowledge (a) our talk is a function of our knowledge, and (b) our knowledge is a function of our talk.

What We Endured Before Anomaly! Was Published 

Now,  I  can  argue  by  negation.  What  happened  when we  lived  in  a  world  where there  was  no clear expression  of  the  professional  discourse  in  physics?  What  happened  when,  for  whatever reasons, physicists  were  not  writing  books  like Anomaly!  and  there  was  no  direct communication  between the  professional  discourse  among  physicists  and  the  presentation  of physics  to  the  world?  What happened is that individuals began to take liberties with the knowledge of physics, and they began to create their own discourse about the ways and means of physics. The most notable example is the now-legendary presentation of the double-slit experiment with a single electron. 

Slit  and  double-slit  experiments  have  been  a  tradition  in  physics  going  back  for  centuries  to 1801 when  Thomas  Young  first  described  it.  In  1909,  Sir  Geoffrey  Ingram  Taylor  performed  a double-slit experiment with the smallest, weakest beam of light he could manage to manipulate, and published "Interference  Fringes  with  Feeble  Light." But  after  that,  between  1909  and 1961  no double-slit experiment  was  performed.  Moreover,  and  specifically  to  the  point,  between  1900 and  1963  not one  famous  quantum  physicist  actually  performed  such  an  experiment  using  an isolated  electron and  getting  the  results  we  have  all  heard  about  so  much.  It  was  not  even until  1964  that  Richard Feynman  merely  predicted  someone  would  one  day  be  able  to  do  it. 
From  that  time  until  today there have appeared various fantastic claims associated with, for example, Wheeler’s delayed choice experiments, or so-called quantum eraser experiments.  

It  is  common  knowledge  that  the  double-slit  experiment  was  a  favorite  thought  experiment  of pioneer  quantum  physicists  who  routinely  resorted  to  it  to  think out  points  and  argue  for different ideas.  But,  none  of  the  famous  quantum  physicists  of  the  first  sixty  years  of classical quantum physics ever performed a double-slit experiment in which they fired a single, isolated electron.

Consider  this  timeline  of  major  events  in  the  history  of  the  famous  double-slit  experiment with  a single electron, as it relates to quantum physics. Observe the timeline of research with gaping holes, and notice  the promotion  of this thought experiment as if it represented real research, with nearly everyone performing their version of it, claiming to be the first, along with the contradictions of fact and fancy throughout its history.

These are some of the biggest highlights in the history of double-slit research. To this day, the actual Feynman double-slit experiment with a single electron has never been performed in its entirety. 

The first recorded attempt claiming to pull off the experiment with a stream of electrons took place in 1961. In 1965, Feynman suggested they might be able to one day fire off single electrons in such an experiment. Only a handful of double-slit experiments have been conducted since then. It is not the kind of thing that pops up in Dorigo’s Anomaly!, because physicists at top levels do not perform it and talk about it repeatedly, as one is led to believe in the more casual discourse of documentaries and books about physics for lay people who know little or nothing about physics. 

Give Us Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth 

What Dorigo’s Anomaly! represents is the first true installment in decades on the professional discourse of physicists. Instead of listening to people talking about the professional discourse, we get to witness and hear the professional discourse itself. There is no filter or middle man presenting us the watered-down version for public consumption. This book conveys the real professional discourse of world class physicists, deciding and arguing on the developments in their field. Without it, all we had was the didactic teaching of physics to students, or the documentarian wowing of physics audiences, but these are distinctly different from the professional discourse itself. 

There is no substitute for the professional discourse, because that is the red thread running through the beginning, middle, and end of the science. There are documentaries about physics, but physics is not about documentaries. There are textbooks about physics, but physics is not about school books. Physics is essentially the professional discourse of physicists. It is the professional discourse, performed on the level of talk, that envisions, adjudicates, and manages the development of the science, and that is the be-all and the end-all of physics. 

The real problem is that there is an inescapable interrelationship between knowledge and talk, and when we only focus on our knowledge, we get imbalanced. Without the real professional discourse acting as a correction or a balance, the talk about physics knowledge becomes farther and farther removed from the professional discourse itself. This hypothesis is borne out by Anomaly!,  in which no part of the dramatic lore from any physics documentary made in the last 50 years shows up or is even hinted at. To finally get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, about what top level physicists talk about when they do their science is like finding an oasis after wandering in the desert for years.

In all likelihood, the best and brightest physicists will always engage furtive arguments about what they are doing and how to interpret the data. Furthermore, their professional discourse is always destined to be decidedly more sane and balanced than the documentarian view, which has essentially bordered as much on science fiction drama, as science. 

I  strongly  suspect  that  for  many  of  us  it  will  be  exciting  to  open  Dorigo’s Anomaly!, and  learn how particle physicists really talk about their work, and to confirm something many of us could only have suspected before: namely, that there is a big difference between physicists arguing about their own work,  with  each  other,  as  professionals  engaged  in a scientific  discourse,  and  the  way isolated individuals  will  conspire  to  talk  about  physics,  when  not  held  accountable  to  the professional discourse.


In closing, a big Thank you, Tommaso Dorigo, for having the insight to know that what the world of science  needed  was Anomaly!,  because  more  than  anything,  we  need  to  know  what  physicists  are actually talking about when they do their work, whether we understand it all or not. Because you did that, I do not feel so crazy anymore, and I know that common sense still has a vital place in science, which almost sounds like a revolutionary concept, after surviving the 20th century. 

We can only hope physicists choose to keep open dialogue and communication going, and above all, let  Dorigo’s Anomaly!  stand  as  a  reflexive  milestone  in  the  professional  discourse  of  physics,  and never stop recording, analyzing, and publishing the professional discourse of physics - it is extremely important to the rest of us, and to that extent, to the entire project of the tower of science, which is premised  on  the  democracy  of  talking  and  arguing,  for  staying  vital  and vibrant,  full  of  life  and promise.  

The  spirit  of  science  is  not  just  about  facts,  truth,  and  what  we  think  we  know,  after  all,  it’s  about how  we  look  up  at  the  night  sky,  and  just  talk  -  talking  about how  small  we  must  be,  pointing  out stars, wondering how big infinity is, talking about how we always want to go as far as we can go, and know all we can know, because that’s where all the fun is.

Alex Durig


Tommaso Dorigo is an experimental particle physicist, who works for the INFN at the University of Padova, and collaborates with the CMS experiment at the CERN LHC. He coordinates the European network AMVA4NewPhysics as well as research in accelerator-based physics for INFN-Padova, and is an editor of the journal Reviews in Physics. In 2016 Dorigo published the book “Anomaly! Collider physics and the quest for new phenomena at Fermilab”. You can purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the book cover in the column on the right.